Scientology casts a shadowy spell on superstars
A new documentary on Scientology has revealed how the sect wields a powerful and enduring influence over the professional and personal lives of a number of Hollywood's biggest names. We profile the stars whose screwball beliefs guide their every move
Published 20/04/2015 | 02:30
Cast your mind back to 1975. The actor John Travolta was just a twenty-one-year-old smooth-mover with great hair, a chin dimple and a big dream.
Searching for guidance, he stumbled across a pseudo-scientific self-help book by, appropriately enough, the pulp-fiction writer L Ron Hubbard. Called Dianetics, the book was described by its author to be a "mix of western technology and Oriental philosophy". It promoted a series of theories and practices which claimed to be able to rid adherents of irrational fears, promote fulfilment and professional success and cure a host of maladies, both psychological and physical.
Two years later, Travolta had scored his breakthrough role in the cult movie Saturday Night Fever and was launched on a precipitous climb through the ranks of Hollywood. Over the next few years came, Grease, Pulp Fiction, Look Who's Talking, Face Off, and many others. Travolta's name became a byword for a particular kind of slick-haired, tough-guy Fonze-esque cool. "Scientology put me into the big-time," he later admitted.
Today, alongside a handful of mega-stars and a number of Hollywood insiders, Travolta is not only one of the Church's most high-ranking members, he's considered by the church to be one of its greatest assets. But the shine has come off his brand, and there are those who would argue that it's his ongoing devotion to his madcap faith that is hurting his image.
Last month, Going Clear, a ground-breaking documentary feature investigating the controversial organisation was aired on HBO, becoming instantly one of their biggest hits, and prompting a fierce campaign of rebuttals and denials from the Scientology camp.
Imagine a hybrid of a Christian church, the masons, and the self-help industry. Throw in the secrecy and opacity of the secret service, and a much derided belief that humans are re-incarnated aliens, and you have a flavour of how Scientology is generally viewed by the outside world. Fodder for comedians and journalists. It is particularly scorned by rationalists and the intelligentsia as a faith, often regarded as being utterly incompatible with critical thought.
In America, only about 50,000 people declare themselves to be Scientologists - half the number who identify as Rastafarians - and yet this apparently tiny religion is said to have accumulated over $1billion in liquid assets alone, as well as a vast property portfolio. It looms large in popular culture and the public imagination, and given its tiny size, is curiously disproportionally represented in Hollywood, where a number of household names (Tom Cruise, Kirsty Alley, Elizabeth Moss and Juliette Lewis to name a few) as well as industry insiders are passionately devoted to it.
Hollywood is full of mystics. The town's boutique religions are as various, colourful and strange as its pampered, pea-cocking inhabitants. But it is Scientology which has managed to obtain the most controversial reputation. Perhaps for it's rampant, and unapologetic devotion to profit.
According to reports, L Ron Hubbard announced his new venture in the 1950s by saying, "If you want to get rich, start a religion." Maybe it's the skulduggery in its history. When Tom Cruise first joined in the mid-1980s, the group had been the subject of the biggest raid in FBI history, after which several of its senior members, including L Ron Hubbards wife, were jailed for a series of crimes, such as wire tapping, theft, and breaking into government offices. Hubbard himself went into hiding for the rest of his life.
Or perhaps it has something to do with the characters of its most high-profile spokespeople, Cruise and Travolta, whose alpha-male posturing and utter lack of irony are so at odds with the mood of the time.
Despite its reputation, Scientology is a fiscal force to be reckoned with. Controversially, it enjoys the tax free status afforded to religious organisations in the States, though many dismiss it as a cult. Influence and expansion have always been an acknowledged part of the group's aim.
The same year Travolta signed up, L Ron Hubbard is said to have launched his "Project Normandy" which focussed on building the Church's base in Clearwater, Florida and was described by some as an operation to take over the city. Today, it certainly seems like that goal has been achieved.
According to reports in one local paper, the Church owns 67 prime real estate buildings over 10 square miles - said to be worth well over half a billion dollars. At the centre of this vast property portfolio is the so called Super Powers building- the largest building in the city, and a space dedicated to training high-ranking Scientologists in the "Super Powers" programme which aims to enhance and develop what Hubbard identified as human beings' 57 "perceptics" or senses.
Certainly, as a monument, the Super Powers building can't be said to do them any favours in the credibility department. Ditto the fact that highest ranking members go by the name Sea Org.
Not far away from the HQ, Sea Org member Kirstie Alley lives in a vast waterfront Mansion. In nearby Oacala, just outside Clearwater, John Travolta's family home is readily identifiable by the fleet of private jets parked on the tarmac outside.
In Going Clear, the film-makers claim that the church holds a dossier of blackmailing material, described as a "black PR package," on Travolta, containing personal details of his life that were revealed during the course of many detailed counselling or "auditing" sessions he has undergone in his years in the church.
Travolta responded last week: "I haven't experienced anything that the hearsay has (claimed), so why would I communicate something that wasn't true for me?" he said.
"It wouldn't make sense, nor would it for Tom, I imagine. I've been so happy with my experience in the last 40 years... that I really don't have anything to say that would shed light on (a documentary) so decidedly negative. I've been brought through storms that were insurmountable, and (Scientology has) been so beautiful for me, that I can't even imagine attacking it. Why would I even approach a negative perspective? That would be a crime to me, personally, to do that," he said.
With membership these days a PR liability, it's hard to explain the attraction Scientology holds for its famous members, when association comes at such a high cost. Celebrity biographer Andrew Morton offered a theory, when he wrote about Tom Cruise following his break up with third wife, Katie Holmes, whose departure from the faith and the marriage was treated in the press like a daredevil, high stakes escape from a Bond villian.
"Actors respond well to Scientology teachings," Morton said.
"For a profession that is so self-involved, the idea of following a faith in which the object of devotion is the self - in which a man becomes his own god - is alluring. Scientology strokes the ego as it lightens the wallet. . . For Cruise, who had childhood memories of an abusive, drunken father and a mother who worked tirelessly to keep him and his sisters fed and clothed, the notion of an instant family had a deep appeal. Scientology feeds and soothes, 'love-bombing' celebrities, praising them, cosseting them and keeping them secure."
Though Travolta credits the Church with helping to stabilize his family life, it certainly appears to have had the opposite effect for Tom "three divorces" Cruise. Unlike Travolta, when Tom Cruise joined The Church of Scientology in the mid 1980s he was an actor at the top of his game.
With characteristic energy, he'd transcended his difficult childhood, and fought tooth-and-nail to become Hollywood's hottest property. In 1984, at the age of 24, he became involved with a glamorous former-actress six years his senior and the pair married soon after.
Mimi Rogers, who had been raised as a Scientologist, had an exotic past. She'd left school at 14, and had worked as a professional gambler and an actress before becoming a counsellor and recruiter for the church of Scientology. As a recruit, Cruise remains her biggest catch, though the marriage was short-lived, and Rogers is apparently no longer a Scientologist herself.
A Vanity Fair article in 2012 suggested that the couple may have disagreed over issues of faith and Rogers herself commented wryly in an interview with The Telegraph that the "real story" was that "Tom was seriously thinking of becoming a monk. At least for that period of time, it looked as though marriage wouldn't fit into his overall spiritual need. And he thought he had to be celibate to maintain the purity of his instrument. My instrument needed tuning."
For the Church however, the recruitment of Cruise was regarded as an important coup. According to Morton, David Miscavige, who had taken over leadership after the death of Hubbard told his colleagues that "the most important recruit ever is in the process of being secured. His arrival will change the face of Scientology for ever."
At the time, it was clear that Scientology needed a life-saving credibility injection. After the criminal convictions in the 1970s, its reputation was in tatters and members were deserting in droves. It stood accused of being little more than a profiteering sect, which used manipulation, surveillance and bullying tactics to brainwash its members and extort millions of dollars from them, all based on the preposterous theories and personal charisma of L Ron Hubbard.
Having Tom Cruise as a vocal supporter drastically improved the organisation's prospects overnight, and has been mooted as an explanation for the organisation's growing financial clout. He provided invaluable leverage, through which the group could recruit other wealthy and influential individuals to its ranks, charging them hundreds of thousands of dollars to attend its training courses.
Scientology, according to Vanity Fair, responded in kind. Under the aegis of providing personal, professional and spiritual guidance, the church of Scientology rapidly mobilised as an advisory committee dedicated to Cruise. When his short marriage to Mimi Rogers collapsed, it rallied a support team to ease the transition.
When, on the set of Days of Thunder he struck up a romance with Nicole Kidman, the church were said to have been involved in the courtship, helping Cruise in his campaign to gradually initiate her into the organisation, while discreetly vetting her background.
Initially, as Andrew Morton tells it, Nicole Kidman seemed to be willing to embrace Scientology and, despite her Catholic upbringing, church leaders appeared to approve. With one caveat - her father was a psychologist, and therefore the embodiment of all that is anathema to its principles.
Scientologists believe that psychological study, psychiatry and the use of psychoactive medication together form a kind of terrorist conspiracy based on an evil and bogus construct of mental illness.
But time-after-time, in Cruise's life, his faith has proved an insurmountable obstacle to his love life. A few years after they were married, Kidman's commitment to Scientology appeared to waver. In 1998, she said in an interview; "There's a little bit Buddhism, a little Scientology . . . I was raised a Catholic, and a big part of me is still a Catholic girl."
The third of Tom's wives to have defected from Scientology, actress Katie Holmes, has remained tight-lipped on her departure. But according to Andrew Morton she began as an obedient adherent, even going so far as to give birth in silence according to the faith's principles, but later became "fearful that her daughter Suri, now six and ready for the next stage of Scientology (known as "security checking"), would be brainwashed against her, she made her great escape from the Camp Cruise open prison.
"She could see at first hand how Kidman's relationship with her adopted children Connor and Isabella is distant at best - both children are educated at Scientology schools. Holmes was determined that it wasn't going to happen to her."
Katie's escape from Sea Org changed her reputation as it had done ex-members Lisa Marie Presley and director Paul Haggis. In the Church, they are now "suppressive persons", and so enemies.
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